Environmental Protection

Study of Soil Microbes Could Minimize the Effects of Erosion

The ARS is conducting a new study to discover how microbes in the soil that are carried off by strong winds could lead to finding ways to minimize soil damage that is caused by wind erosion.

Using a wind tunnel and the latest DNA technology, USDA scientists are shedding light on the travel patterns of microbes in soils carried off by strong winds. The work has implications for soil health and could lead to management practices that minimize the damage to soils caused by wind erosion.

Wind erosion is an emerging issue in soil conservation efforts. ARS scientists have been studying wind-eroded soils since the 1930s, but few studies have focused on the effects of wind on the bacteria, fungi, and protozoa in the soil. ARS is USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency.

Researchers collected airborne dust and samples from a type of organic soil susceptible to wind erosion from fields where potatoes, beets, and onions had grown a few years earlier and exposed them to windy conditions using a portable wind tunnel. They characterized the bacteria they found in both the "source soils" and the wind-eroded sediments, focusing on types of bacteria associated with coarse particles and on the types associated with fine dust particles.

Their studies show that Bacteroidetes (a type of bacteria found in fine dust) resist desiccation and can survive in extreme conditions when carried long distances. Proteobacteria (bacteria found in coarse soils) were associated with coarse eroded sediments, which travel shorter distances, which could explain how soils can retain important qualities despite damaging winds. Proteobacteria play an important role in carbon and nitrogen cycling, and their fate in dust storms will be the focus of future research.

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